Getting to know Karina Assis, Vallourec Star

11/06/2020 - Careers

[Women in [email protected]]

When Brazil-born Karina Assis visited a steel mill as a teenager on a school trip, she immediately felt at home. Two decades later, with a PhD, a prestigious industry award and work on two continents under her belt, her passion for manufacturing is even stronger – and she’s grown used to being the only woman in the room. 

Hello Karina, what is your role at Vallourec?

I work as a process engineer within the operations technology team. Our mission is to improve quality, costs and project efficiency. In theory, we can provide technical support wherever it’s needed: in practice I’m fully dedicated to the Vallourec Star melt shop in Youngstown, Ohio. I feel like part of their team. 

What does a typical day look like?

Every day starts with a morning meeting with production – around 20 managers, supervisors, operators and melters – in which I present KPIs, and we discuss any issues from the previous day and plan projects. The rest of the day varies depending on the project. I often spend a couple of hours in the pulpit, observing processes: other days are data-intense and involve a lot of computer work. I have a real mix of projects, with some common objectives. Working with the team, I examine processes to see how we can improve, and constantly try to find ways to save money without compromising on quality.

How did you get where you are today?

At school, I always liked science subjects. Then one day, we visited a steel mill, and something clicked. You could see mathematical equations taking on physical forms before your eyes. People were working hard. It was big, bright and impressive, and I thought I’d fit in. 

Initially, I worked in research. I did an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering followed by a PhD in Materials Science and Engineering in the United States on a specialized topic related to casting. My husband works for Vallourec, and while I was still completing my PhD, I had the opportunity to move to France and work at the VRCF research center as a project manager. The research topics were fascinating – my work ranged from managing metallurgical characterization support in projects related to corrosion, to providing technical support on exploratory research on new welding processes. But as we moved back to the States, I knew I wanted to work on the front line. That’s how I found myself interviewing at Vallourec Star for a role that offered everything I wanted: practical, challenging and with a company people want to work for.

What do you you like about your job… and what do you find the most challenging?

I’ve worked in both research and on the front line, and I definitely prefer the latter. In research, you don’t see the final product. Life at the mill is more dynamic and solutions aren’t black and white. In production, time is of the essence. You have to juggle priorities. You’re not trying to find the most theoretically perfect solution, you’re trying to find a compromise: how to deliver the right quality in the right timeframe. 

I’m gaining knowledge from the people I work with, and having to adapt constantly. It’s a real learning experience. In research, you don’t have to adapt in the same way. On a personal level, I find it both rewarding and challenging. It’s ironic that the part of the job that scares me the most is also what makes it the most interesting!

Karina Assis

In production, time is of the essence. You have to juggle priorities. You’re not trying to find the most theoretically perfect solution, you’re trying to find a compromise: how to deliver the right quality in the right timeframe. 

Karina Assis Process Engineer, Vallourec Star

You’ve worked in both France and the United States: what differences did you see?

I worked for a year in France and was struck by a couple of major differences. One was how decisions are made. My experience in France was that people take an analytical approach to risk, and decisions tend to be the result of meetings and discussions in which different options are explored. What I’ve seen in the United States is more along the lines of “we’ll try this plan and if it doesn’t work, we’ll do something else”. And in terms of leisure, there’s a stark difference: French people love travel and eating out, while Americans like to make the most of their home and local community. It’s been great to have experience of living in both cultures!

Karina Assis group photo

What do you enjoy about working at Vallourec, and how do you see your career developing?

I like the people: the different personalities of my colleagues are what makes life interesting! We work very well together: they’re always open to my ideas, and have the confidence to try them to see if they work. And on my side, I learn something new every day. On a wider level, Vallourec provides excellent support. I’ve been doing Lean Six Sigma training and am now working towards black belt level. I see myself continuing in a frontline role: in the future, I’d like to expand my role to cover more steps of the process.

What advice would you give to women considering your career?

I was lucky to be born into the first generation of women in Brazil for whom working in science and engineering carried no major stigma. But I still have to deal with negative comments from people who think that working in a steel mill is dirty. A lot of these comments come from women. I think we need to challenge preconceptions. Sure, working in a steel mill 100 years ago might have been horrible, but that’s definitely not the case today.

It can still be a challenge for a young woman to decide to go into such a male-dominated field. You need to get used to the idea that you’ll often be the only woman in the room. My advice would be: don’t feel intimidated. Hold your ground, don’t let people put you down and be proud of what you’re doing.

The team at Vallourec would like to congratulate Karina for her recent award: in April 2019, she was awarded the Adrian Normanton medal for a scientific paper based on her thesis (Improved cold-finger measurement of heat flux through solidified mould flux, published in Ironmaking and Steelmaking). The award is given to the best technical paper on the topic of steelmaking or casting. 

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